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Benjamin, Floella (1953- )

Actor, Presenter, Writer

Main image of Benjamin, Floella (1953- )

Born Floella Benjamiyn in Trinidad on 23 September 1953, her father invented her name - 'Flo' being short for 'flower' and 'Ella' meaning 'best of all'. She was one of six children; her policeman father was a keen musician who left Trinidad in 1964 to play jazz saxophone in England and around the world. The family later settled with him in Beckenham, South London. Here Floella first encountered racism, some from other children, some institutional. An excellent school athlete, she was forbidden from taking a running trophy home because of her colour.

With ambitions to become Britain's first black woman bank manager, she worked as a bank clerk for two years. In 1973, she successfully replied to an advert seeking singers and dancers for hippy stage musical Hair - she had previously only sung in school shows. It was here that she also met future husband Keith Taylor, a stage manager. Subsequent West End roles included The Black Mikado in 1975 (as Pitti-Sing).

Her television debut came in 1974 in an episode of Love Thy Neighbour (ITV, 1972-6), though her real break was playing jailed prostitute Barbara in six episodes of prison drama Within These Walls (ITV, 1973-78). Other acting roles included sitcom Mixed Blessings (ITV, 1978) and drama serial Send in the Girls (ITV, 1978) about a team of sales promotion girls.

Having altered Benjamiyn to become 'Benjamin', she joined the Play School (BBC, 1964-88) team in late 1976, following in the footsteps of black presenters Carmen Munroe, Johnny Silvo and Derek Griffiths. While acting roles could stereotype ethnic minorities ("always a nurse or a bit of a whore," she said in 1976), with Play School Benjamin could be taken at face value as an energetic presenter, singer and dancer, while characters like 'Reggae Rita' helped introduce other cultures to young viewers. Benjamin joined spin-off Play Away (BBC, 1971-84) from 1979 and soon became a children's television stalwart in sketch show Fast Forward (BBC, 1984-87), the first series of game show How Dare You? (ITV, 1984-87) and Lay On Five (BBC, 1985-86) which she also wrote. She 'graduated' to adult presenting roles including BBC2 music magazine Musical Chairs (BBC, 1979), animal quiz Monkey Business (BBC, 1985), Daytime Live (BBC, 1987-89?90?) and Wish You Were Here...? (ITV, 1976- ).

Benjamin formed her own production company in 1987, Floella Benjamin Productions, producing and presenting Treehouse (Channel 4, 1988), Playabout (BSB, 1990), Hullaballoo (Channel 4, 1994-96) and Jamboree (ITV, 1998-2001), all semi-educational pre-school shows reminiscent of Play School.

An autobiography for junior readers, Coming to England (1995), describing her difficult immigrant upbringing, was dramatised for BBC Schools in 2003, with Benjamin taking a cameo role as a teacher.

She was awarded an OBE for services to broadcasting and charity in 2001 and a Children's BAFTA Special Award in 2004. She was Chairman of BAFTA (Television) and is a Governor of the National Film & Television School among numerous committee positions.

Alistair McGown

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From the BFI's filmographic database

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Black Joy (1977)Black Joy (1977)

Lively, idiosyncratic Black comedy, starring Norman Beaton

Thumbnail image of Hole in Babylon, A (1979)Hole in Babylon, A (1979)

Controversial drama based on the Knightsbridge Spaghetti House siege

Thumbnail image of Play Away (1971-84)Play Away (1971-84)

Children's songs, jokes and sketches, presented by Brian Cant

Thumbnail image of Play School (1964-88)Play School (1964-88)

Long-running BBC programme for pre-school children

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Thumbnail image of Pre-school TelevisionPre-school Television

From 'flob-a-lob' to 'eh-oh'

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